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MILITARY IN FICTION #6 - Rank and Organization

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MIF #6 - Rank and Organization

The greatest difference between a military and a bunch of roving bandits is organization.  We are, really, institutionalized anal retentiveness.  We have specific rules by which we do just about everything, from the way we iron our shirts to the way we shoot weapons to the way we have to stand when the national anthem is playing.  If there isn’t a form or publication that details how I’m supposed to do something, I’m probably not supposed to do it.  That’s the military – at least the United States military – and that’s the world I live in.

Of course I’m using hyperbole here to highlight my point.  Not every facet of our lives is regulated by complicated codes, ranks, and bureaucracy, but a significant portion of it is.  Certainly far more than a civilian’s life.

But why do we do it that way?  Organization and discipline transform us from a militia into a military, and even though the purposes behind our structure may not be readily apparent, there really is a method to our madness.  Often we are slaves to tradition as well as practicality and discipline; the salute, for example, stems from the raising of the visor during the times of knighthood.  By doing so, one knight allowed the other to see his face, and since most knights were right-handed, it removed their sword hand from the vicinity of his weapon.  Now we use the salute as an exchange of respect between officers and enlisted (or for the flag, the president, or the Secretary of Defense).  That way, when I pass an enlisted troop, I can be fairly certain he is not about to shoot me.

When you’re creating or imitating the military, you’re going to need to have some structure to it.  This can be as loose or as tight as you want it to be; the US military looks a lot different from the German military on the drill pad (and I’m not sure French military knows where the drill pad is).  But you’re going to need some sort of structure; otherwise all you have is an armed mob.  Who knows – maybe that’s what you were aiming for.

Here are your three points for understanding and utilizing organizational structure in your writing.

1.) Rank structure – have one.  Rank may be one of the most important aspects of the organization of a military, but it is not the only important thing.  Too many writers focus entirely on rank when it comes to making decisions and crafting characters, over-emphasizing or misapplying its importance.  I don’t blame them; it’s tough to really understand rank and its application when you’re not in the military environment.  It’s very easy just to look at a rank chart like this one and view it too linearly.  I’m going to be referencing this chart as we go, so pay attention.

[caption id="attachment_404" align="aligncenter" width="300"] Officer Structure - O1 is the first officer rank, and so on[/caption]

[caption id="attachment_403" align="aligncenter" width="300"] Partial Enlisted Structure - E1 means First Enlisted Rank, and so forth[/caption]

Rank is primarily a determinant of responsibility and expectations.  Look at the bottom enlisted rank of each of the services and notice its title – private, seaman, and airman.  The word “private” is a shortened term for “private soldier”, so you might as well look at them as soldier, seaman, and airman instead.  These low ranks describe the (ostensibly) most basic skillset of the service.  As a low ranking member, you are expected to espouse the basic values of your service and become competent in its most basic skills.

This brings me to the division between officer and enlisted.   This gap differs widely between militaries, and it is up to you to determine how to use it.  First, you must understand that it is not a linear flow; in most militaries, one does not start as the lowest ranking enlisted man and end up as the General of the Army (the highest ranking officer in the US Army).  They are two different tiers of ranks, with different qualifications, responsibilities, pay, and expectations.  Let me go into the US military rank structure as an example, and by explaining these responsibilities I should be able to help you understand what rank is and how it’s used.

In the US, officers are managers and leaders.  Their job is to understand and utilize the skills of the other officers and enlisted underneath them to achieve victory, and not necessarily to possess technical expertise.  Low ranking officers are called “action officers” or “company grade officers” because they make the low-level, tactical decisions that have direct, visible outcomes.   Then you have “field grade officers”, those whose purview should be wider (about as wide as a field, for example).  They should have a better idea of the big picture, and they are not expected to execute basic tasks as often as their lower ranking counterparts.  General officers are expected to understand military policy, manage civilian-military relations, and form strategic objectives.  Generals and admirals do not (usually) man the machine guns and spray fire at the enemy.  If they do, it probably means everyone else is dead.

In the US military, enlisted are the followers, but they also lead in their own right.  Lower-ranking enlisted are the “do-ers” the accomplishers of tasks, the people that are working hard to become technically proficient in their assigned skill set.  As they grow in rank, they become subject-matter experts and mentors to the lower enlisted, advising the officers on enlisted affairs and contributing to problem solving.  They are not, as many writers attempt to portray them, peons and drones that can’t walk without an officer telling them which foot to put forward (that only happens in boot camp).  They are required to obey orders and can be punished for insubordination, but the order has to be valid.  I can’t order an airman to go get me a cup of coffee because I’m feeling lazy.

That being said, I’ve worked with the militaries of other countries where the enlisted served the officers lunch.  Literally.  That’s how far the gap was between the two rank tiers.  You have a wide range of options to choose from when building your military.  You can have a weak officer corps, mired in politics and completely distant from the fighting enlisted men (see the British high-ranking officers in World War I for an example of that), or you can have a military where rank has very little influence.  It’s up to you, but once you establish your structure, make sure you stick to it.  If it’s improper for an enlisted man to disagree with an officer in public, yet you have a character who consistently does it without repercussion, you’ve violated the principle of rank structure.

2.) Militaries are a bureaucracy.  While rank structure may be one of the most important, the bureaucratic nature of the military is easily the most frustrating.  But who can blame it for developing that way?  It’s an organization of millions of people with access to the means by which to make warfare.  It has to be regulated if it is to be effective. Records must be kept.  Rules must be written. Dilbert must have material for his dry, cynical humor.  I say this tongue and cheek, but much of what Dilbert talks about can be applied to the US military (and likely many other militaries).  I have a friend who makes a hobby of slightly altering text in Dilbert cartoons to make fun of real-life military situations he’s been in, then hanging them on the walls for the amusement of his compatriots.  Many times he doesn’t have to alter them at all.

Not all militaries are equally bureaucratic.  I’m nearly positive that the Zimbabwean army doesn’t keep dental records on all of its troops, and I’m equally as positive that they don’t have to fill out three forms when they go on vacation.  I have to fill out three forms as a minimum, and I can find out how many cavities I had ten years ago if I wanted to.

Applying this to your writing may seem tricky, but it’s as easy as understanding that your military is a living, breathing organism that has many moving parts, many different agendas, and, perhaps, many different masters.  The bigger the military, the longer it’s going to take to get things done, especially when it comes to mobilizing for war.  The only reason the US is able to move so quickly is because we have established bases all throughout the world.  That alone took us almost a century and two World Wars to achieve.  Campaigns in ancient times often took years just to start.

You have some wiggle room in your fiction, since it’s much easier to pull the wool over your readers eyes when it comes to logistics, something with which the average reader isn’t familiar.  The level of realism you want to include is up to you, but understanding the bureaucratic monster is a key to making it work for you instead of creating plot holes.

3.) Echelons.    When I use the term echelons, I am partially referring to the “chain of command” and partially referring to how an effective fighting force is organized.  As with all characteristics of militaries, yours might vary anywhere between having no echelons and having hundreds.

Let me pause to explain the chain of command, which will also help you understand echelons.  The chain of command is the line you can draw from one person in the military all the way up to the highest ranking member.  I, for example, am a member of a squadron, the second lowest echelon in the air force.  The next person in my chain is the commander of my squadron, who is in charge of a unit (the squadron) of about 300 people.  His boss is the commander of a group, comprised of several squadrons and totaling, perhaps, a few thousand people.  The group commander’s boss is the wingcommander (no, not the PC game).  The wing commander’s boss is the numbered air force commander, followed by the major command commander, followed by the chief of staff of the air force, and the president of the United States.

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="640"] US Army Echelons[/caption]



I have a lot of bosses, but I never talk to any of them except the one directly above me.  That’s how we filter orders down from the president, who gives us strategic guidance, to the squadron level, which accomplishes tactical objectives such as destroying individual targets.  Each of these echelons is commanded by officers of increasing rank, and each of the echelons is expected to achieve different objectives.  An entire major command and the assets allocated to it would not be dispatched to fight an army of ten men.

What this means for your military in your writing is that there is more at work than a single soldier or even a single field commander.  The divisions that come between echelons (and ranks) will have their own implications.

Humorous interlude:  If you want to see a real-life violation of the principles of the chain of command and echelons, check out this letter from an Airman, First Class (one of the lowest ranks in the air force) to the Chief of Staff (the highest ranking person in the air force).

My point in showing you this?  A pikeman isn’t going to go running to the commander of your military and complain about food shortages; he’s going to tell his boss, who is probably a low ranking officer of some sort.

Hopefully I’ve given you a good look into the structure of the military.  Take these principles and apply them to your writing – with some additional research – and I guarantee you’ll have a more realistic military setting.

Case Study:  Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson

I’ve only read book one of this series, but if you want a great example of how to organize a military in a fantasy setting you need to check it out.  In fact, I almost didn’t like this book because it felt too military to me.  I tend to not want to read things that correspond too closely with my daily activities – the last Clancy novel I read was fifteen years ago -  and the regimental military structure in this book hit a bit too close to home.  But I still recommend it as a good book with a great story and a fantastic example of my point in this article.

Erikson obviously did some research.  As far as I know, he’s had no personal military experience, but you can’t tell at all in the novel.  Just a look at the glossary shows that he knows how to organize – he defines the “Bridgeburners” – a nickname that works wonderfully with the article on lingo – as a “division” underneath the “2nd Army”.  Using words that correspond with modern militaries – division, regiment, company – lends immediate credence to your military environment.  It’s okay to steal from the real world – you don’t have to have a random combination of consonants and vowels for everything in a fantasy novel.

Erikson blends some of the conventional with the fantastical.  He subordinates echelons like “divisions” to a “Fist”, a fictitious but realistic body of military combat power.  Ranks like Lieutenant and Captain are intermingled with Adjunct and High Fist.   More importantly, he interweaves them properly.  A captain is in charge of a lieutenant, who is in turn in charge of a sergeant.  Armies are broken out into divisions, which are then broken out into companies.  You could mix them up – it’s your world after all – but it would be exceedingly confusing for anyone who has any knowledge of military rank.

Coming up with a structure for your military can be fun or mundane, depending on how OCD you are.  You don’t necessarily have to have one as clear-cut and defined as Erikson’s, but if you’re going to be talking about the military you are going to have to have some semblance of a chain of command.  Otherwise, all you have is a band of brigands in uniform.

Thanks for reading,



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